Bob Eichel never toured his son’s freshman dormitory apartment at Boston University, nor did he ever see inside the brownstone house nestled along the Charles River, where the NHL’s likely second-overall draft pick lived last summer. The family had already experienced the emotions of move-out day once before, when Jack Eichel left at age 15 for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Michigan. They threw a party then, sending him roughly 750 miles west to chase his dreams, and cried happy tears. But now? With Jack only a half-hour’s drive from his parents, with their son effectively back home?
“I never saw the dorm once,” Bob Eichel said. “My wife didn’t either. People just took the stuff up and he was gone.”
Just like that, Jack was a tornado tearing through his first — and possibly only — season with the Terriers, becoming only the second freshman to win the Hobey Baker award as the NCAA’s top player. He still enjoyed the comforts of living near Chelmsford, hauling home bags of dirty clothes and eating at the same Italian restaurant with Bob at least once a week, still a teenager navigating a new world beneath a brightened spotlight. He was not alone.
Friday night, when the 2015 NHL draft begins in Sunrise, Fla., Eichel, with roughly 50 family members and friends in attendance at BB&T Center, might also help script a historic first round for college hockey. The Buffalo Sabres are expected to select Eichel at No. 2, almost a foregone conclusion given Edmonton’s obvious choice of Connor McDavid at No. 1. If Boston College’s Noah Hanifin and Michigan’s Zach Werenski also get tabbed before Florida drafts 11th, it would mark the first time three current NCAA players went among the top 10 selections and only the second time three went in the first round (2006).
“Without question, at the collegiate level, the game holds you accountable,” said David Quinn, Eichel’s coach at Boston University. “You’re up against men, you’re up against depth, you’re not playing against guys your age or younger. It’s a much more difficult game than major junior guys.”
Eichel only logged 40 games this season, significantly fewer than what McDavid and other Canadian Hockey League counterparts played, but many within the college ranks see this truncated schedule and older competition as beneficial.
Werenski, for instance, added and maintained five extra pounds of muscle while on campus in Ann Arbor, a product of regular weight room sessions, and mentioned an art class he took with teammates as an extra plus of attending college. Quinn, recalling his three seasons steering the American Hockey League’s Lake Erie Monsters, wished many of his players who came via Canadian junior leagues had incubated longer before they leapt into the professional ranks. And over at Boston College, Coach Jerry York found himself selling not only the Eagles’ program, but the collegiate route altogether.
“I think both are avenues to go to the National Hockey League,” York said. “It’s certainly much more viable now and much more accepted policy that, hey, I go to BC, Michigan. I’m on this side of the fence. I think that’s a terrific option. The maturity level of the players in the collegiate game are generally 18 through 24. You’re going to be tested against man strength. It’s hard to fight through it.”
In this regard, Eichel, Hanifin and Werenski are anomalies, highly recruited phenoms each ranked among the five youngest players in Division I this season. (All five were 17 when the season began on Oct. 1, compared to the average freshman age of 20.2.) And perhaps location dictated their path, too; each chose a renowned program in his home state, while projected 2016 No. 1 pick Auston Matthews, an Arizona native, is reportedly choosing between the Canadian junior route or playing overseas.
Still, their mere presence in Florida represents a growing trend. In 2002-03, former NCAA players accounted for 21 percent of NHL rosters. Last season, according to data from College Hockey Inc., that rate reached 30 percent.
“I think [playing college hockey] helps [prospects] be prepared on the mental side of the game and the physical side, because they’re more mature to handle trying to compete for an NHL roster position,” said Dan Marr, Director of NHL Central Scouting. “The elite 18 and 19 years old, and I mean elite, where there’s three or four a year, they can handle [the transition to the NHL regardless of where they play beforehand] because they have the talent and the abilities, but there’s too many others who fall through the cracks because they aren’t really prepared, and sometimes their careers are short-lived. I think that the players that have a little more patience, I’m not surprised that it’s showing or tracking that once these players get into the league, they stay there.”
Up in Massachusetts, speaking via telephone the day before his family left for the draft, Bob Eichel seemed unconcerned about such matters. He joked about Jack, a former youth baseball player, hurling the first pitch at a Miami Marlins game, and about his son picking up the tab for their next Italian dinner, and how when Jack left home for Michigan, Bob bought an iPhone and learned how to text. But even that seemed long ago. After all, college will likely be fleeting for Jack, one-and-done if he decides to join the Sabres. It was the path he chose, and the one that led him into the NHL.
“It happened so fast,” Bob Eichel said. “We didn’t know what classes he was taking. It was crazy. It was weird. It was great having him home. It was just . . . a whirlwind.”